Are smart software and smart people the key to CFO success?

25th August 2016

We are all connected by our will to succeed and separated by our definitions of success, in both our personal and our professional lives. For this reason alone it is inevitable that there should be a certain amount of space between what CFOs and other senior finance executives want to achieve and what they are able to achieve. However, there are other reasons for the expectation gaps says Lesley Meall, FSN writer– and many members of the profession appear to be connected by these. 




The extent of this became apparent when the FSN Modern Finance Forum on LinkedIn researched the future of the finance function among its 46,000 members. Many senior finance executives who participated were connected by their struggle to find an equilibrium between their traditional role as a finance steward and guardian of corporate assets and their newer roles as business partners, strategic advisors and technology influencers – and the reasons for this gap. 

“Our study highlights that finance professionals share many of the same ambitions and hurdles wherever in the world they happen to be situated and no matter what industries they serve,” says Gary Simon, FSN chief executive. “Our findings illustrate that for most of us the limiting factor is time,” he adds. Fortunately, by sharing their experiences (in the FSN survey and on LinkedIn), members of the Modern Finance Forum are also helping to point the way forward.

Smart software

How inherently ‘smart’ software is varies. Nevertheless, our research finds that we can work smarter if we standardise and automate core finance processes and link front and back office systems helps. CFOs who have, spend less time (than those who have not) on transaction processing and statutory reporting, have a better view of organisational performance, forecast more accurately and make quicker decisions based on comprehensive and accurate information. 

Digging into our research data shows that: standardisation sets the scene for innovation and process improvement; automation frees up time that would otherwise be spent on transaction processing and enables finance teams to make better use of technology; once standardised, there are obvious benefits to further automation; the link between front and back office systems enables senior finance professionals to be more actively involved in strategy development. 

These findings resonate for finance professionals such as Trisha Haughey, group finance development director at Rentokil Initial. “Automation and standardisation are the sort of things we know we need to do if we want to drive forward using some of the technologies that are out there,” says Haughey. Yet a few years ago when she took on her current role, Rentokil Initial didn’t even have a group chart of accounts. “I was amazed,” she recalls; then she realised why. 

Great minds

She says: “You can get all the FDs in a room and everyone nods and says ‘Yes, we need a single chart of accounts. Yes, we need to standardise processes,’ but absolutely none of them believe that it applies to them.” This makes it difficult to take these changes out into the organisation. “You have to influence your way through,” says Haughey. In her experience, if you want to take people with you on this sort of journey, you have to change their mindset. 

On one level this is about encouraging people to be less hidebound. “If people believe that Excel is the only tool they are ever going to need, you can stick any systems you like on top of it and you will just have burnt a ton of cash,” says Haughey. This dovetails with our research, which highlights the need to focus on succession planning, to nurture talent in the finance function and invest in people so that they can fully exploit technology and be a better business partner. 

Those who invest strongly in their people have finance functions that are further along the ‘Modern Finance’ journey than those that do not invest in their people. The CFOs who are able to invest in the development of their teams are themselves more likely to be actively involved in strategy development, helping the business create value, engaged in helping the business deliver value. However, recruiters highlight that some ‘team’ skills are more important than others. 

Smart people

Businesses value accountants who are strategic thinkers; they don’t always nurture this. “Firms could do more to help,” says Tim Hird, executive director, Robert Half Management Resources. “These are not easy skills to train on, but managers should identify ways, such as giving employees project-management responsibilities and stretch assignments, to support staff members' growth.” Finance teams also need to keep pace with technology change. 

Following emerging technologies is important; so is understanding specialist tools such as financial software packages. If formal training in-house isn’t an option, Robert half suggests encouraging staff to undertake their own training by providing study leave and/or reimbursing costs on completion of approved programs. Mentoring and reverse-mentoring (where junior team members act as technology mentors for more senior colleagues) can also pay off. 

Thinking about the kinds of people you recruit – and why – may also boost your chances of being surrounded by smart people. If you want people to think for themselves, those who fit the traditional finance profile may always not be the best choice. “We need to recognise the added value of somebody with a different background and perspectives,” says Simon. “If we want finance people to be better business partners, perhaps we should recruit more people from retail.”